Running through their routine manual checks of Google search rankings for highly competitive addiction treatment industry terms, it didn’t take long for employees at Dreamscape Marketing to realize something was amiss last week, CEO Daniel Gemp tells Behavioral Healthcare Executive. Ordinarily, a search for a term such as “Los Angeles luxury rehab” will bring up organic results that list the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s website first, followed closely by treatment providers in the Southern California area. Last week, however, two unfamiliar websites that appeared to be operated by the same party leapfrogged to the top of the coveted rankings. First, the website addictionhelp.today garnered the top organic ranking before quickly disappearing. The website drughelpline.org followed the same pattern days later. The unusual activity led some search engine optimization professionals to speculate that someone had figured out a way to fool Google. As of Wednesday morning, both websites in question were active, although neither was among the top organic search results as they had been at different points last week. According to the disclaimer on its site, addictionhelp.today is owned by 10862436 Canada Inc., a for-profit organization that creates health-related web projects, and that the phone number on the site “directs to a 3rd party call centre that Addiction Help Today does not own or operate.” BHE attempted to contact the operators of addictionhelp.today by phone at the number listed at the top of the site. A message left with a staff member who received the call was not returned. Per its FAQ page, calls to phone numbers listed on drughelpline.org are directed to partner for-profit organizations. BHE attempted to reach out to the site’s operators by email, but did not receive a response. The websites rankled marketers for two reasons: First, they suspect black-hat marketing tactics were used to artificially send them skyrocketing in search result rankings. Second, they point out that the sites appear to engage in lead aggregation – the process of acquiring potential clients and transferring them to treatment centers willing to pay for the lead, which some accuse of being patient brokering. Even if a site hits the top of Google’s organic search results for a day or two, the stakes can be extremely high. Gemp estimates searches for residential addiction treatment terms can garner hundreds, if not thousands, of calls. Ironically, Gemp says, the marketing resources required to pull this sort of operation off and the costs of acquiring leads from it likely are so high, the operators sinking money into it could actually get a better bang for their buck by just doing things ethically. “What’s shocking is the amount of resources, effort and money that must be going into this,” Gemp tells BHE, pointing out that treatment centers often have better SEO results by investing in generating meaningful content. In the meantime, Google, as well as ethical operators and their search engine optimists, will continue staying vigilant looking for unusual activity – a sort of Whack-A-Mole for organic search results. “Until we, as an industry, can mature to realize this is both capital inefficient and ethically ineffectual, we’re going to be subject to freelancers … making our healthcare decisions and affecting our brand rankings,” Gemp says. For more about SEO, ethical marketing practices, and Google, attend the Treatment Center Executive & Marketing Retreat in New Orleans, June 10-12. Visit www.executiveandmarketingretreat.com for more details.